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Everest College grads want loan forgiveness for 'worthless' diploma

04/17/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/02/2015 08:59 EDT
Former students of defunct Everest College say their diplomas are "worthless" and the Ontario government should forgive their thousands of dollars in student loans.

Some recent Ontario grads of the now closed private career college are joining a growing movement in the United States. They're asking for loan forgiveness for their studies with Corinthian Colleges, the American company that owned Everest and other private colleges in the U.S.

"It's a dirty diploma," declares Karen Zahoruk, who graduated from Everest's Hamilton campus just weeks before the college's collapse in the province.

"If I mention Everest to anyone who has any knowledge of news, they say, 'Oh, Everest,' and it's not a good, 'Oh Everest.'"

Sudden shutdown

In February, Ontario's superintendent of private career colleges suspended Everest's licence due to financial concerns, effectively shutting down the school's 14 Ontario campuses.

The next day, Everest's owner, Corinthian, filed for Canadian bankruptcy protection.

The move followed U.S. federal and state investigations and lawsuits alleging Corinthian preyed on low-income students and falsified job placement data, student grades and attendance at its U.S. schools. Corinthian claims many of the allegations are "unfounded."

'Useless' diploma

Zahoruk, who got a medical lab assistant diploma, earned high grades. But she says she can't land even a minimum-wage job in her field, because, she believes, Everest's reputation is tainted.

"Stigma is a pretty significant thing," she says.

Patience, who graduated in December, agrees. She asked that we withhold her last name because she worries speaking out will further hurt her career prospects.

"Everybody knows about [Everest's reputation]. It leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth," she says.

"It's worthless," she concludes about her addictions and community services diploma from the college's Hamilton campus.

After failing to find a job, Patience is pursuing a second diploma at another private college, adding to her debt.

Swamped with debt

Patience wants the province to forgive what is at least $17,000 in student loans she racked up attending Everest.

Zahoruk owes an estimated $6,000 and wants that quashed. "I am going to have to earn money to pay back the debt of a useless diploma," she says.

The Ontario government is offering financial assistance to the 2,400 students who were still attending classes and were stranded after the Everest shutdown.

The recent grads say the government should also be on the hook to help them.

Last July, Corinthian was forced to start selling off most of its more than 100 schools as a result of a crackdown by the U.S. Department of Education.

​Its Everest Ontario campuses immediately went up for sale. The grads say by that point the province should have stepped in to protect students.

"They should have caught this sooner," says Patience.

Province acted carefully, it says

The Ontario government claims it made all the right moves.

The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities says the superintendent of private colleges had been closely monitoring Everest since June 2014 when financial concerns surfaced.

The superintendent didn't take further action because Corinthian was shopping for an Everest buyer, explains the ministry.

"Any regulatory action taken at that time may have impeded a sale or have indirectly resulted in its closure," says ministry spokeswoman May Nazar in an email.

Nazar also noted that Everest's licence was immediately suspended once it became clear a sale wasn't likely.

Corinthian says many of its grads have managed to land jobs.

"We have tens of thousands of graduates who completed their studies, passed their certification exams and found employment," says spokesman Joe Hixon in an email, referring to the company's entire private college chain.

Not every post-secondary grad quickly finds a job, argues Serge Buy with the National Association of Career Colleges in Ottawa.

He says that there are recent Ontario Everest grads who are working in their fields.

"I think the job placement rates were actually not too bad with Everest," he says, adding that he doesn't have actual statistics.

We won't pay

In the U.S, about 100 displeased Corinthian current and former students are taking more extreme measures. They have gone on a debt strike, refusing to pay back their school loans.

They argue that the U.S. government should have better monitored the schools and made students more aware of growing concerns.

Their cause was recently bolstered by nine U.S. attorneys general who have asked the federal government to relieve Corinthian students of their debt.

Zahoruk says she's not about to join the debt strike and ruin her credit rating.

"It's just going to make me out to be a deadbeat," says the Everest grad.

But she's not giving up the fight. She's organizing a protest next month in Toronto and has already started an online petition and website with the headline, "Everest Grad Tuition Forgiveness!"

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